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If the TV offerings are good enough, sightseeing can wait

October 05, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

In a hotel room in St. Petersburg, Russia, one night last winter, I couldn't get to sleep no matter how much I punched in my pillow. After what seemed like hours, I finally turned on the TV. An American movie was showing.

As bullets ricocheted and blood spilled, I went all warm and soft inside, not exactly the customary response to the scene in "The Godfather" in which Sonny Corleone gets whacked. But sleepless in St. Petersburg, half a world away from home, I felt as though an old friend had taken a seat at my bedside. The tension drained from me, and long before Michael Corleone returned home from Sicily, I had reached the land of Nod.

My mother, a great traveler, would have been distressed to hear that I sometimes hole up in hotel rooms watching reruns of "Law & Order" and "Friends" instead of seeing the sights. But I've found that TV on the road has its uses as a distraction during long, jet-lagged, sleepless nights and as a palliative for loneliness. I'm a sporadic TV watcher at home, so on the road I indulge in the guilty pleasure of watching shows I've heard about but never seen.

Then too I occasionally chance upon a bonbon too delicious to deny, even if it means delaying a visit to Venice's Bridge of Sighs. On a visit to La Serenissima a few years ago, I decided this might be my one shot to see "Some Like It Hot," dubbed in Italian, on TV in a pensione, in midafternoon, as a woman in the building next door hung her size XXXL unmentionables on the line in the courtyard.

I've become something of a foreign TV connoisseur, though sometimes I walk into a hotel room, turn on the tube and find nothing to watch but news, repeated in endless loops.

Elizabeth Guider, executive editor of Variety, says that in Europe any hotel above tourist class is bound to have the spectrum: CNN, Fox and Sky, as well as news in French, German, Spanish and Italian.

It's only a little harder to consistently find familiar old American sitcoms and dramas abroad. The most widely syndicated of these include "The Simpsons," "The X-Files" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."

"In Germany there's also 'Quincy,' " says Guider, "and the French love 'Columbo.' "

Pay-per-view TV is common in faraway hotel rooms, offering recent movies and adult entertainment, the most-used option, according to hotel industry experts. Channel-surfing in a hotel bed, I'm always surprised to find trailers for that smutty stuff. Last winter, on a German river cruise, I found a free local soft-core porn station on the television in my cabin showing a program that featured a man and a woman in underwear, about as hot as Frankfurt in December, their antics joyless and oddly funny.

When all else fails, there are movies to watch at hotels with DVD and video libraries. A stylish small hotel in downtown Manhattan, 60 Thompson, has more than 1,000 titles to choose from; the selection is smaller at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, but each room comes equipped with three free videos of such movie classics as "North by Northwest" and "L.A. Story."

So little time, so many choices.

Trouble is, I usually can't figure out how to work the remote, which is frustrating. Recognizing that many travelers are similarly challenged by technology, Hyatt Hotels Corp. has begun installing a new streamlined Bang & Olufsen entertainment system. "It's going to be extremely intuitive, with very few options to get lost in," says John Prusnick, director of corporate technology for Hyatt International.

Of course, there are those romantic hideaways that don't have TVs at all. "Our guests come to get away from everything," says Dan Priano, the general manager of the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. "They almost never request them."

Korakia, an intimate little Palm Springs resort favored by movie and fashion industry people, abjures TV as well. Owner Douglas Smith says this creates the atmosphere of a private house party at the hotel, as entertainment moguls and young screenwriters mix around the pool instead of hiding away in their rooms. When darkness falls, movies are screened in the courtyard, alfresco. They're checked out from the Palm Springs Public Library around the corner, which has a collection of 11,000 videos and 1,000 DVDs.

Watching "Adam's Rib" or "La Dolce Vita" under a sky full of stars sounds like heaven to me. So does checking into the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., specifically to cuddle up with "The Shining," a horror flick that features a rambling old mountain inn much like the Stanley. Stephen King got the idea for the novel the film was based on while staying there, which is why the movie runs continuously on an in-house channel.

Likewise, the historic Hotel del Coronado near San Diego shows Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Though it was set in Florida, the 1959 comedy has become uniquely associated with the Del because it was shot there. "During bad weather, everyone wants to watch it," says Christine Donovan, director of heritage programs at the Del.

Someday I'm going check in there with my favorite jammies, order from the room service menu and watch "Some Like It Hot" in bed. Sea World can wait when you can see Curtis and Lemmon in drag.

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